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Friday, July 31, 2020

Hulu's 'Groundhog Day'-Style Romcom 'Palm Springs' Is an Existential Time Loop

Posted By on Fri, Jul 31, 2020 at 9:01 AM

  • Photo by Jessica Perez
As the months pile on, the global pandemic we collectively face has — among other losses — obscured our sense of time. We wake up, check the news, eat. Some of us work from home; others never stopped going in; many are unemployed. Regardless of one’s position, most days have bled together.

It’s the eternal recurrence of life. Like Sisyphus, the boulder we have been pushing up the mountain has become heavier.

Max Barbakow’s debut film Palm Springs unwittingly speaks to this humdrum existence. Nyles, played by a goofy Andy Samberg, puts it best: “Today, tomorrow, yesterday — it’s all the same.”

A Sundance hit that was recently released on Hulu, Palm Springs is a sci-fi variation of 1993’s Groundhog Day — just substitute Samberg for Bill Murray. Nyles finds himself in perhaps one of the most dread-inducing time loops: a wedding he’s only at because his girlfriend, Misty (played by Meredith Hagner) is a bridesmaid.

From the tale’s start, Nyles is already stuck in this infinite cycle, having fully embraced the brand of nihilistic thought that “nothing matters.” He is, for example, very unfazed by the knowledge that Misty is cheating on him. And he has been living most of his days to the beat of being consequence-free. Why not have sex with whomever and eat, drink and consume whatever if you’re doomed to wake up to the same morning for all eternity?

He lounges on a pizza-shaped float, drifting through dazzling blue pool water while drinking beer, eating a burrito and donning a loose Hawaiian shirt. There’s a deceptive warmth to this image: The film’s sun-drenched desert backdrop may be colorful, but this endless summer does not yield happiness.

Palm Springs doesn’t truly take off until Sarah, the older sister of the bride, enters. Portrayed by Cristin Milioti, she becomes stuck with Nyles after following him in to a cave — the source of the time entrapment.

They have an undeniable, charming chemistry that will make you feel fuzzy. (They had me smiling like a goof). But the duo stand on their own, too, both fleshed out with unique story arcs. On the surface, Palm Springs isn’t a revolution, yet it manages to bring a freshness to the time-loop subgenre through character development.

Sarah could have been sidelined as a manic pixie dream girl trope or, as Groundhog Day does, a projection for Nyles to fix himself upon. In Palm Springs, both characters have their own shit to navigate in order to self-actualize; it is through their connection that life begins to move forward, even if the next day is technically the same.

They work through these motions together, throwing themselves to the wind, floating by the pool, chugging beers, playing out shenanigans, doing drugs and, yes, killing themselves to reset the day.

Whereas Nyles clings to the philosophy that nothing matters to shield himself from feeling, Sarah resists this concept, adhering to the more existential idea that there must be meaning and consequence. To grow, she must forgive herself and learn to let others in; Nyles must move past numbing his pain and into manifesting meaning for himself. Both of them are realistic, relatable characters worth rooting for despite their flaws.

“I can’t keep waking up in here,” Sarah says to Nyles, the reality of the never-ending unbearable. But he, on the other hand, struggles to come to grips with the idea of existence outside the void.

Speckled with dark humor, the sci-fi romcom doesn’t feel mired by its existential angst, mostly due to the leads’ endearing, funny performances; Milioti and Samberg are a true joy to watch. The supporting cast, at times, feels underdeveloped. But in a world of sameness, that’s also a bit of the point. J.K. Simmons’ Roy is the only other “stuck” character, adding a welcome spice of absurdism to the mix. The logic of the time-loop is fuzzy, but this doesn’t detract from the plot’s real focus.

The film’s sentiment feels ever-so relevant in a pandemic where connection to others often feels fragmented, or altogether lost. Palm Springs reminds us that, even if we are drifting through a dark place, the search for a way out the cave — for a new tomorrow — is worth the cost of overcoming apathy. Rating: A-

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Monday, July 27, 2020

Amazon's Uneven Marie Curie Biopic Can't Quite Transcend Genre's Constraints

Posted By on Mon, Jul 27, 2020 at 4:20 PM

Rosamund Pike as Marie Curie in Radioactive - AMAZON STUDIOS
  • Amazon Studios
  • Rosamund Pike as Marie Curie in Radioactive

Cleveland, Ohio, makes a brief, unexpected appearance in Marjane Satrapi's Radioactive, the Marie Curie biopic starring Rosamund Pike now streaming on Amazon Prime. Marie and Pierre Curie (Pike and Sam Riley), after years of painstaking laboratory work, have just announced the discovery of two new elements, radium and polonium, in 1898 when then film abruptly cuts to a hospital in Cleveland more than half a century later. A doctor is telling a father that his young boy might be saved by a new machine and its associated treatment: radiation.

It's one of four flashforwards that punctuate the film's key moments, narrative attempts to depict not just Marie Curie's life, but the earth-shattering ramifications of her scientific discoveries. One of them shows the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima in 1945. Another, during a late, emotional scene, shows the Chernobyl nuclear reactor disaster of 1986.

It's a sporting effort by Satrapi, whose autobiographical animated film Persepolis was nominated for an Academy Award in 2008, to transcend the rigid boundaries of biographical films, but it largely fails. The flashforwards are colorfully designed and filmed, but are mainly just disruptive. Furthermore, they're so stiffly acted that they detract from Pike's commanding lead performance. 

Pike notwithstanding, Curie's discoveries are unfortunately just as visually uninteresting as they are groundbreaking. Even for an innovator like Satrapi, it's difficult to organically convey the drama of new science which occurs in beakers and on graph paper over many years, and so characters are constantly expounding upon the exhilaration of their work to remind the audience how important it is. The script, penned by Jack Thorne, in general relies far too heavily on exposition.

But Pike is indeed strong. She plays Curie as headstrong and even impertinent in a scientific community dominated by petulant old men. The title's double entendre refers not only to Curie's scientific work but to her personal life, (about which viewers will presumably know less). Alas, Marie's marriage to Pierre and her affair in the film's second half, which engenders widespread animosity and headlines in the Paris tabloids, are utterly devoid of chemistry. 

Much of that has to do with the difficulties inherent in biopics. Like others, Radioactive attempts to stage Curie's entire adult life as a 100-minute feature film. It's not constructed around a single discovery or relationship; rather, it captures a number of important life episodes — marriage, children, Nobel Prize — not unlike a Cliff's Notes volume. This limits the audience's ability to deeply connect with the characters.

Anya Taylor-Joy (Emma.) appears in what feel like the film's final 10 minutes to play Curie's daughter, who's suddenly 18 years old. It's a late-blossoming WWI storyline — securing funding for mobile X-ray units on the battlefield is "the final fight of my life," Curie says — that contains within it the ingredients of a film all its own, a better one than Radioactive, I thought.

Apart from these frustrating constraints, the costumes, lighting and set decoration are all on point. Late 19th and early 20th century Paris are rendered in the dim sepia tones of old photographs, on surfaces both sooty and ornate.

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Friday, July 24, 2020

Writer-Director Scott Wiper Drew Upon His Northeast Ohio Roots To Make 'The Big Ugly'

Posted By on Fri, Jul 24, 2020 at 4:25 PM

  • Courtesy of Vertical Entertainment
In the opening scene of The Big Ugly, a gritty new action flick from writer-director Scott Wiper that opens today at area drive-ins and select theaters, Preston Lawford (Ron Perlman), a tough-as-nails oil tycoon, rips down a Confederate flag that a group of rednecks have fastened to the back of their pick-up truck, telling the guys that it’s the flag of “losers.”

It’s a tense scene that sets the mood of the movie, a dark film about criminal behavior and the possibility of redemption.

“I wrote that scene in the summer of 2017 after seeing some of those flags as I was living in West Virginia motels and eating dinner in bars,” says Wiper in an email exchange. “I got into a ‘chat’ with some guys. I realized I was not going to make my point on a broader level, so I boiled it down to a basic argument that anyone could understand — you lost. When casting scripts, you always need a good hook for a character’s intro. I wrote that to introduce the bold man of honor — oilman Preston Lawford.”

When he first read the script, Perlman (Hellboy, Sons of Anarchy) loved it and signed on to do the movie if only to deliver that line. He actually phoned Wiper up and said the line to him over the phone before he'd even met Wiper.

"Ron called me after he first read the script, and the first thing he said to me was, ‘If you wanna fly a flag, motherfucker, go win something,’” says Wiper. “We both laughed, and he said, ‘I want to do this movie. I love this character, but I really want to say THAT line, and do THAT scene.’ I don’t think I’d written it with the profanity, but Ron is very skilled at inserting profanity into most any sentence. I had no idea the issue would be so current in the summer of 2020. Neither did Ron.”

Set in West Virginia (but filmed in Kentucky) the movie centers on the conflict that ensues after a British gangster (Malcom McDowell) strikes a deal with Preston to launder some dirty money. The film’s anti-hero, Neelyn (Vinnie Jones), a guy Wiper describes as “a lost man in a foreign land searching for an identity,” puts his loyalty on the line to defend himself against Preston’s asshole son, triggering a battle between the Brits and Americans.

Wiper, who moved from Ohio to Los Angeles in 1995 after completing Captain Jack, a low budget-film he’d shot in Licking County, tapped into his Ohio roots to make The Big Ugly.

“I produced the film with Karri O’Reilly and Vinnie Jones,” he says. “Karri and I bonded back in 1993. We were both just out of school, and we were Ohio filmmakers. We’ve worked together before. She’s amazing. She’s a very smart filmmaker. And, she knows everyone in Ohio who works in film. Together, we put together a crew that I’d say was 75 percent Ohioans — Cleveland and Cincinnati, mostly. There’s a huge wealth of talent in Ohio, and we were fortunate that the timing was right, that we were able to enlist the best of the best. At first, we thought we’d film in Ohio. But for various reasons, including tax incentives and landscape, we moved south across the Ohio River, but we remained very much an Ohio crew.”

A dark movie — literally and figuratively — The Big Ugly concludes with a dramatic showdown that involves a vicious battle between the British gangsters and their American counterparts. Though extremely violent, the movie’s conclusion somehow still delivers a message of hope, in part through the character of Thomas (David Myers Gregory), the town drunk who’s a helluva lot smarter than he seems. Thomas forms a bond with Neelyn that suggests communication can take place between people with wildly different backgrounds.

“I feel a darkness in society now, but I am a warrior of hope, I’d like to think,” Wiper explains. “I see a brutality in society. I see 18 years of war. I see it gets harder and harder for the working class to survive. I see Wall Street greed. I see the opioid epidemic. I see unfairness and division. These things deeply upset me. Show business is brutal. However, I am an optimist. The Big Ugly is about redemption and enlightenment — so the story tries to bring these loners together, through a series of events, and together, with the smallest act of kindness and humanity exchanged, they make it to daybreak, together, when light overcomes darkness."

He says working with people from the Midwest helped bring that vision to fruition.

"I"m trying to make movies, but doing so with friends and good people, and — maybe shaving off some the assholes that often come this show business grind," he says. "I think we did that successfully on an administrative level; we worked well together out here in the Midwest with a fantastic group of filmmakers.”

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Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Quarantine Cat Film Fest, Which is Exactly What it Sounds Like, to Screen Virtually at Cleveland Cinemas

Posted By on Wed, Jul 1, 2020 at 11:18 AM

  • Courtesy Quarantine Cat Film Fest
A 70-minute quarantine cat video compilation will be available for home viewing from Cleveland Cinemas' virtual cinema offerings starting Friday. Half of the $12 ticket price will go directly to the local chain, keeping theaters like the Cedar Lee, Tower City and the Capitol afloat during the pandemic, which has indefinitely delayed their openings.

Pittsburgh-based filmmaker Brian Mendelssohn created the cat video compilation specifically to generate revenue for independent movie theaters like Cleveland Cinemas. (Mendelssohn owns a small independent theater, Row House, in Pittsburgh.) He received more than 1,000 submissions of cat videos for the project.

“The response has been better than we could have ever hoped and we have so much great content to work with,” said Mendelssohn, in a statement provided to the media. “It’s going to be a really fun feature with hilarious and adventurous cats and, of course, some adorable kittens too.”

Mendelssohn and his wife evidently got the idea after watching their own cats play during quarantine.

Cat content is always a hit online and has in fact met with large audiences at Cleveland Cinemas in the past.

“Thanks to the huge success of our annual CatVideoFest program at the Cedar Lee Theatre, we knew that people never tire of watching cats do silly things,” Jon Forman, President of Cleveland Cinemas, said in a press release. “We appreciate the continued support of our Virtual Screening Room titles as we wait to re-open our locations.”

Tickets for Quarantine Cat Film Fest and other virtual titles can be purchased at

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Monday, June 29, 2020

Amazon's PG-13 Surveillance Comedy My Spy Delivers on Low Expectations

Posted By on Mon, Jun 29, 2020 at 12:11 PM

Chloe Coleman and Dave Bautista in My Spy. - COURTESY OF AMAZON STUDIOS
  • Courtesy of Amazon Studios
  • Chloe Coleman and Dave Bautista in My Spy.
Poor My Spy never had much of a chance. The kid-cop buddy comedy starring Guardians of the Galaxy’s muscle-bound Dave Bautista and nine-year-old Chloe Coleman (Little Fires Everywhere), was meant to open last August. It got bumped to January, and then, to paraphrase the prophets of Third Eye Blind, it got bumped again, and then bumped again.

It looked like My Spy might sneak into the April slot vacated by the hotly anticipated No Time to Die but was then postponed indefinitely due to Covid. At that point, Amazon swooped in and scheduled it for a streaming release, which felt more like a summary execution than a resurrection. The film is now free on Amazon Prime and will be screened at some drive-ins.

This sputtering release saga is no doubt a letdown for the cast and crew, but it won’t be for viewing audiences, who are trained to have lower expectations for direct-to-video products. My Spy isn’t much more than downtime viewing, a low-grade semi-sweet Bautista vehicle that manages a few genuine laughs as it rigidly adheres to a tried-and-true action comedy formula. But it’s a mixed bag. Directed by Peter Segal, the Tommy Boy alum responsible for some of Adam Sandler’s more forgettable outings in the early aughts – Anger Management, The Longest YardMy Spy feels less like a PG-13 movie than a PG movie intercut with an R-rated one.

Bautista is Jason Jones, or JJ, a CIA bruiser who’s more suited for military combat than covert ops. After blowing his cover in the opening scene, he’s dispatched to Chicago on a softball surveillance assignment with an adoring tech, Bobbi (Kristen Schaal). That funny-voice comedic actors Schaal and Ken Jeong are peopling the CIA in My Spy should give you an idea of its verisimilitude.

Once again, JJ’s cover is instantly blown, this time by the kid on whom he’s supposed to be silently keeping tabs. The young Sophie, (Coleman), spots a hidden camera in her apartment and tracks the wi-fi to a unit upstairs. Sophie and JJ make a deal. She won’t reveal his identity if he agrees to teach her some spycraft. Voila! The film’s second and third acts more or less write themselves. The tough guy JJ is softened by Sophie’s cuteness, and Sophie, who had been struggling to make friends, is emboldened by JJ. Naturally, JJ and Sophie’s mom Kate, (Parisa Fitz-Henley), kindle a chaste romance.

All that material is to be expected. What’s unexpected is the occasional burst of violence. It’s not graphic, necessarily – it’s not like there’s much blood – but there are sustained gun fights, explosions and “scenes of peril” that don’t gel naturally with the kid comedy atmosphere. My Spy’s target audience remains a mystery.

Schaal is responsible for the movie’s funniest line, and Bautista, who’s a more natural beefy sidekick than a leading man, is nevertheless well-cast as the reluctant spy coach. He’ll never have Dwayne Johnson’s range of expression or charisma, but as the latest WWE-to-Hollywood darling, he’s learning to manipulate his brawn for laughs.

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Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Aut-o-Rama, Ohio's Top Movie Theater Last Weekend, Looks to Dominate with Harry Potter Marathon

Posted By on Tue, Jun 23, 2020 at 2:52 PM

  • Aut-O-Rama Drive-In Twitter
The Aut-O-Rama Drive-in movie theater in North Ridgeville was the fifth-highest grossing movie venue in the country last weekend, according to industry reports. It raked in more than $60,000 on the strength of its Jurassic Park / Jaws double feature.

Per Deadline, Ohio currently has 56 movie theaters open for business, trailing only Texas (82) for most sites in the country. But due to fears of Covid-19 and limited titles in new release, indoor venues have performed extremely poorly.

Drive-ins, on the other hand, are experiencing a resurgence. All five of the country's top-grossing venues last weekend, and 160 of the top 201, were outdoor drive-in movie theaters. The Aut-o-Rama was the top-grossing theater in Ohio.

In addition to Jurassic Park and Jaws, Steven Spielberg summer box-office hits from 1993 and 1975, respectively, the Aut-o-Rama is showing the crowd-pleasing family films Shrek and Despicable Me.

Starting Friday, the drive-in will look to increase its national ranking with a Harry Potter marathon. Two films from the original series will screen each night Friday-Monday with the two Fantastic Beasts films screening on Tuesday.

Per night, tickets are $10 for adults and $5 for kids under 12. But for the full marathon, a single five-day ticket is $25 for adults and $10 for kids. They can be purchased here.

The Aut-o-Rama is located on 33395 Lorain Road in North Ridgeville.

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Monday, June 15, 2020

Cleveland Cinemas Reopening Delayed Til Further Notice

Posted By on Mon, Jun 15, 2020 at 5:15 PM

  • @CapitolW65th

Cleveland Cinemas last week announced plans to slowly reopen its theaters in the coming weeks, focusing on Hollywood classics and discounted tickets.

That plan, like those of many other businesses, has already been adjusted.

“Our business is reliant on the release of new films from Hollywood as well as key independent distributors,” Jon Forman, President of Cleveland Cinemas, said in a release. “With the recent announcement of release dates being pushed back on blockbusters such as Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, we have decided to delay our reopening. We hope to have new re-opening dates for our locations soon.”

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